When did calls for women’s suffrage start in Britain?


Early 1800s there were male politicians and theorists who supported the idea of women’s suffrage, but it was considered very much an issue for “the feminists”, and not for the average woman. In the latter half of the 19 century, a lot of women’s rights agendas were focused on other issues, therefore distracting from the issue of suffrage: including campaigning for a woman’s right to own property (achieved 1882).


It’s important to note that most men could not vote in the first half of the 19 century. With only a fraction of the population able to vote (only those over the age of 21, male, and deemed to have “a stake in the country”, i.e. own land, property and pay taxes), it is understandable that the majority of women did not clamour for the right to vote (discussed more extensively below).

Women certainly developed a firmer sense of being wronged by their lack of vote as the 19 century went on, which was stoked by the Great Reform Act of 1832, which explicitly stated that women could not vote. Interestingly, women were not explicitly banned from voting UNTIL this Act.

“In 1868, the Court of Common Pleas ruled that “every woman is personally incapable” of voting.” (Lewis)

The first woman to vote in Britain was Lily Maxwell in 1867, as her name was added by accident to the electoral register, as she possessed the adequate property to be eligible to vote, were she a man (according to www.parliament.uk the 1832 Great Reform Act gave “the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers”; Mrs Maxwell ran a crockery shop, supporting herself after she was widowed).

A rewording of the Reform Act in the Reform Bill of 1867 that changed “male person” to “man”, which had many mistake it for enfranchising women under the 1850 Act of Lord Brougham which declared “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed to include females unless the contrary is expressly provided”. A “large number of women rate-payers” asked to be put on the voting register – around 5346 women in Manchester, 1341 in Salford, and 857 in Broughton and Pendleton – but were denied on the basis that “this did not apply to the privileges granted by the State” (Garrett Fawcett).

This sense of being wronged as women was consolidated by the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, under which prostitutes were locked away in hospitals in order to be examined and treated for potential contagious diseases. Reports of brutality and maltreatment by men prompted a campaign against the Act by Josephine Butler, a campaign now accredited with breaking the taboo of sex and arguably somewhat aligning the suffragette movement to what many historians refer to as a “sex war”, the fight at this time against the idea that women were merely sex objects (this was referenced during this action against the treatment of prostitutes).

John Stuart Mill’s election as an MP and explicit support of women’s suffrage politicised the issue – especially with the publication of ‘The Subjection of Women’ in 1869. He ran his 1865 campaign to be elected for Westminster with explicit declaration of his support for suffrage, and three women Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Bessie Parkes, campaigned with him (unheard of at the time).

The desire for suffrage is usually dated as starting around the time of Mill’s rise, as this was when it really surfaced on the public agenda.  However, although Mill is considered the starting point of the clamour for suffrage, agitation had been building significantly for a number of years –

Notable events that accelerated this agitation were the case of Lily Maxwell (detailed above), the explicit exclusion of women in the Great Reform Act, and the increasing extension of the vote to more and more men. In 1884 the third major extension of the vote to men took place, meaning around 63-66% of men could now vote. As more men could vote, so more women felt the injustice that they could not. This also opened the suffrage debate up to the working classes – if your husband couldn’t vote, why would you be preoccupied that you could not either? With the increased extension of the franchise to more groups and classes of men, more women of more classes would see their husbands, fathers, brothers etc voting and desired the vote themselves.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett documents the clamours for women’s suffrage in the 1880s after the election of the Liberal government of Gladstone in 1880, on whose agenda was the extension of suffrage to the counties and agricultural labourers (“extension of Household Suffrage in the counties”). She notes that “as the time approached when the Government of 1880 would introduce their Bill to extend household suffrage to counties, the exertions of the women’s suffragists were redoubled”, and that they took to bringing up the issue of enfranchising women in the meetings of the major political parties.

Resolutions in favour of the extension of franchise to women were carried at:

Parliamentary Reform Congress, Leeds, October 1883
National Liberal Federation, Bristol, 1883
National Reform Union, Manchester, January 1884
National Union of Conservative Associations (Scotland), Glasgow, 1887
National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations’ Annual Conference, Oxford, 1887

At the 1884 carrying of the Reform Bill, however, Gladstone strongly opposed women’s suffrage (despite earlier support of it), something which Fawcett attributes to the fact that “the Government had introduced into the Bill [in the form of new extensions of franchise] ‘as much as it could safely carry’. The unfortunate nautical metaphor was repeated again and again: ‘Women’s suffrage would overweight the ship.’” However, it was not a unanimous ‘no’ from the House: although Fawcett calls it a “crushing defeat”, it may surprise people today to learn that it lost by 135 votes to 271.

Around the same time as John Stuart Mill rose to public attention, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed (1867) to campaign for women’s suffrage. A woman called Barbara Bodichon formed a suffrage committee for women in 1866 (the first), and they took a petition to parliament ahead of the 1867 Reform Act, when Parliament were debating its terms. Notably, the women were all middle class –

The suffrage movement was, for quite a while, defined by the class of its participants. Although there were women fighting for suffrage in the mid-late 19 century, they were very much middle class women, and, as mentioned above, it did not become an issue that preoccupied wider society until later on. Part of the Pankhursts’ biggest contribution to the suffrage movement was bringing it to the working class women. On a similar note, much of the women’s suffrage action of the early 20 century took place among the working women in the North of England, particularly the arrests and prison ordeals of the women in Manchester (including Emily Wilding Davison). Jill Liddington and Jill Norris’ book ‘One hand tied behind us: the rise of the women's suffrage movement’ details the role of ordinary working women in the Northern counties of England in the suffrage movement.

Early demands for suffrage also coincided with labour and industry issues of the time, such as the strike at Bryant & May matchstick factory in 1888 in which 1,400 women protested low wages and dangerous working conditions. This may have helped tie the movement with the interests of working class women.

Interestingly, the gradual start to campaigns for women’s suffrage has been argued to be due to the unacceptable nature of campaigning in public. “The novelty of public speaking and campaigning on a major issue like the vote should not be underestimated. Ray Strachey stressed this point in her account of the early suffrage campaign, recording the embarrassment of the women who presented the first petition” (Lewis). Appearing in public to rally support for women’s suffrage was largely considered “disgraceful” behaviour that brought shame upon the woman in question.

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